A sharp comedy about fun with a false personal injury claim, The Fortune Cookie is a tasty treat. The first teaming of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau provides a harmonious dose of passive do-goodness and aggressive scheming, paving the way for the duo to collaborate for three more decades.
While covering a Cleveland Browns game, mild-mannered television cameraman Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is accidentally toppled over on the sidelines by the Browns' star kick returner Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich). Harry is shaken-up but otherwise not seriously hurt, until his brother-in-law lawyer Willie Gingrich (Matthau) gets to him at the hospital. Willie convinces Harry to pretend to be suffering from a serious back injury, and he launches a million dollar lawsuit against the Browns, the stadium, and anyone else remotely related to the incident, to recover damages.
Harry plays along, but he is not really interested in the money. He hopes that his fake injury will trigger a reconciliation with his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West), who has left him for another man. Harry is still madly in love with Sandy, and hopes that she will return to care for him. Meanwhile, the insurance company is suspicious of Willie's wild claims that Harry is badly injured. After Willie has Harry injected with drugs to help fool a high-powered posse of independent doctors trying to verify the extent of his injuries, a team of private investigators led by the gruff Purkey (Cliff Osmond) is hired to maintain round-the-clock surveillance of Harry. But the real victim is Boom Boom, who genuinely believes that he caused Harry a grave injury, and is consumed by guilt that affects his career and his life.
Director Billy Wilder co-wrote The Fortune Cookie script with I.A.L. Diamond, and he delivers an efficient comedy filled with dry one-line zingers, most delivered by Matthau. The prototypical ambulance chasing sleazoid lawyer who has proudly earned the title "Whiplash" Willie, to his own noisy kids he deadpans "why don't you kids go play on the freeway." And to pacify Harry's perpetually hysterical mother, he comes up with "Every week you read in Time Magazine how they're transplanting kidneys and making new spines out of fiberglass. Don't you think the doctors read that stuff, too?"
With Lemmon's Harry Hinkle character being almost too easy for Willie to manipulate, Matthau thrives on sparring with the three stuffy partners at the insurance legal firm, and meets his match in the character of Purkey, a private detective as dour and dogged as they come. The endurance battle between Willie and Purkey will decide the outcome of the fake injury lawsuit.
Matthau suffered a heart attack during filming, keeping him away from the set for five months. Wilder filmed around him while awaiting his return, and then had to conceal the substantial weight loss that his actor had suffered. For his troubles, Matthau earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, although his role is arguably more co-leading rather than supporting.
Lemmon is steady in another typical Lemmon role, Harry Hinkle a relatively simple man sucked up into events much bigger than he can handle, and finding himself at the unintended centre of a growing maelstrom. Harry's enduring starry eyed love for Sandy is the blatant soft spot that Willie exploits to full advantage to launch his scheme, and Lemmon is perfect in portraying a man still hopelessly in love with a woman who long since abandoned him.
The Fortune Cookie is filmed in stark blacks and whites, Wilder portraying a world where Willie's character can call white as black and convince all who matter that he is right. A lot of the action is centred on Harry's apartment, as his world shrinks due to his phoney confinement in a wheelchair. With the smaller surroundings come larger problems, as Harry's emotional stresses multiply: he is unable to cope with Willie's deception, remains unsure about Sandy's intentions, and is devastated by Boom Boom's guilt.
The Fortune Cookie is a sweet and crunchy comedy, and can claim credit for being the first to discover the joy of mixing two key ingredients: a squeeze of Lemmon with a pinch of Matthau.